Saturday, May 03, 2008

Making Due with the Tools Ya Got

When commenting on Ben's artwork (he has new stuff up), Shaney teasingly asked if the back view was showing my best side. I laughed when I realized that I was the last person who could answer that question. You see, my experience modeling for sculpture classes have driven home the fact that I've never seen any of the back part of my body from the top of my head to just above my calves (with maybe just a glimpse of the top of my butt) . Unless you are remarkably limber or, I don't know, part owl, you haven't seen yours.

Of course I've seen photos (and other drawings) of my back, and I've been in dressing rooms with double mirrors making sure those new pants don't make my ass look weird, but there has always been the imposition of two dimensions provided by the camera or the mirror. I know we've all been told that two dimensional images don't do full justice to three dimensional things; we've heard that photos and mirrors don't show us our own faces the way other people see them, and we think oh yeah, that makes sense, but secretly we don't really believe it, do we. I mean come ON. We see photos of other people, and we usually think they are accurate portrayals, why not photos of ourselves? We recognize celebrities on the street whom we've previously only seen in two dimensions, this whole thing may sound reasonable but doesn't actually represent how things work in the real world, right? Well, after the first time I modeled for a sculpture class, I became a believer.

Let me explain how posing for a sculpture differs from posing for a painting. For a painting, I stay still, and so do the artists. During my breaks I might get up and wander around looking at the paintings in progress, but when I'm in the pose, if I can see anything, I only see the back of the canvases, and the concentrated looks on the artists' faces.

With sculpture, on the other hand, the model pedestal is usually designed to spin, like a giant lazy susan, and the pose will get rotated one quarter turn every fifteen minutes. If the class is small enough, the individual students may also be working on wheeled tables, so they can zip around the room as needed, working on whatever angle of the pose they want. What does this mean for the model? It means that everyone in the class will at some point be in front of me, looking right in my eyes, and it means I will spend the entire pose staring at miniatures of my own back.

It was my first sculpture pose that finally convinced me three dimensions does lose something when rendered in two. I was looking at my back, in many ways recognizing it, yet also feeling like it was unfamiliar. I had opinions on who had rendered it accurately and who hadn't, and that would seem to refute the assertion I'm making here. The fact is, though, the over-all feeling was one of discombobulation. Here I was getting additional artistic renderings of something that had been following me around all my life. Almost half my body was, at a basic level, unfamiliar. And would remain so.


Yesterday Dessida and I made the final adjustments to the lights of her show, and walked away feeling like we done good. I've been wanting to describe what we've been working on for all of you for some time now, but when I wasn't working for Dess, or modeling, I wanted to be sleeping. Actually counting up my hours she and I were both surprised at how small the number was; it seems like I've been over there all the time.

Here's what we were doing. Dessida was putting together her thesis show for her MFA in painting. She had painted on huge sheets of heavy-duty watercolor paper in acrylic paint. The smallest of her works measured five feet square. When it came time to consider how to display them and -just as importantly- improve their longevity, one of her instructors encouraged her to use a specific -and apparently pretty rare- archival technique for mounting them.

I wish I knew what the name of this process is. I'm sure it has a name. English is a language of nouns; we love naming things, parts of things, parts of parts, we can't get enough of 'em. But whatever this is called, Dess and I have yet to learn it. Her instructor gave her the name of one archivist who does it, and on her own she was able to rustle up maybe three more in the NYC area. This is not a common technique, whatever it's called. If we were more certain we had been doing it correctly, we could probably start charging a pretty penny, doing this for other people, but that's hard to market when you don't know the name of the process.

Let me describe the steps.

One starts with a stretcher like what is used to mount a canvas painting. Because of the scale of her works, Dessida had to commission stretchers of special dimensions. Then one takes archival cardboard (meaning it is acid-free) and cuts it to fit the interior of the stretcher as smoothly as possible. Naturally the cardboard comes in standardized sheets, and all the stretchers were bigger than the cardboard, so two sheet would have to be cut to the proper dimensions, then held together by a strip of rice paper and white (acid-free) glue on either side of the seam. The cardboard is glued into the stretcher (again with the archival glue), then nailed in, finally for good measure strips of rice paper are glued along the front edges of the cardboard, then wrapped around the wood of the stretchers and glued to the back. The goal is to make a smooth, even surface with no wood or nails bleeding through, since they will age the painting.

So now we're halfway there. Next one takes the painting, trims it if necessary to fit the stretcher, glues six inch strips of rice paper to the back of the painting on all four sides, so the strips extend past the edge of the painting. Once this has been allowed to dry, the painting is placed on the cardboard, then one soaks the rice with water, stretches the paper taut, and glues it to the back of the stretcher. When the paper dries, everything should be tight as a drum, with the painting floating ontop the cardboard, the only place anything is pinned down is on the back. All this glue is water soluble as well, so the process is supposedly reversible. We may yet have to test that theory on some of the earliest attempts.

Everybody with me so far?

So that is the process as we understood and executed it. From the get-go we were a bit unsure of ourselves. Dessida could never find anyone willing to show her the process. The best she could find was someone who would take time out of her busy schedule just long enough to describe the process. Over the phone. (Any suggestion of snippiness on the part of the archivist is mine, not Dessida's). Then, because she was still finishing up the actual painting part in some cases, Dess handed me these instructions and asked me to make the best of it. It was like a weird game of telephone.

Needless to say we started with the paintings Dess was the least attached to, so as to practice a bit before hitting the big time. And boy did we (I) need it. Wouldn't you say this process sounds rather meticulous? Unforgiving of errors, perhaps? Yeah, me too. I'll ask my real life friends for their opinions, but I'd say that when describing me, 'meticulous' is not, perhaps, the first word that springs to mind. Exacting measurements, not exactly my forte. I mean, I can get them, I just get them very slowly, while chanting to myself constantly that yes an eighth of an inch does fucking matter in this case. Dessida's main reason for thinking of me in relation to this work is the fact that I do a lot in paper mache, so she thought I might have some useful insights when it came to a process involving paper and glue. I don't know that I provided much in the way of new information, but at least I had some sense of just how sturdy and forgiving wet paper can be. Rice paper in particular is very impressive that way, in case you're wondering.

So, a basic lack of knowledge and experience was always lurking there under the surface for both of us. I had started and done a few of the stretcher preparations before Dess finished painting, so the first time she and her sister Michal (who came down from the Berkshires two weekends in a row to help) put one together, she asked me if it looked right. The comedy in this was not lost on any of us. A voice in my head asked "does it bother her that she is asking you if it's correct? It should." Anytime we tackled a new obstacle, this annoying little voice would pipe up, saying that there was probably a really easy way to do what we were making very complicated, but we'd never stumble across it, and no one around us would know to tell us. Time was a'wastin' though, so we just put our heads down, and plowed away.

The two other challenges we faced in this process are common ones to the pursuit of any art, especially in New York: inadequate space, and inadequate tools. The MFA art studios are in the cellar (not to be confused with the basement, or the floor between labeled 'cm' in the elevator: cellar mezzanine?) of the engineering building. All the artists have been encouraged to work on a large scale, so both horizontal and vertical real estate were at a premium. When Dess got her cardboard delivered, storing it upright against the wall of her studio seemed like good sense. Once we started working with it though, we discovered that this had seriously warped it. Figuring out how to measure and cut it accurately, while getting rid of the curve, yet NOT crushing the corregation... this was an interesting dance. Then there was finding space to cut things on a scale of anywhere from 5 to 7 feet (sorry Cooper, I kept saying feet when I meant inches, I was delerious) which usually meant working on the floor of one of the common area studios, or occasionally an out of the way entryway in what, after the fire warden issued a warning, I took to calling the fire-trap. But see, these are cement floors that have been trod by generations of engineers and artists working in a variety of media. We'd sweep, put down cardboard (not the fancy kind), then a layer of something called glassine, which looks and sounds like wax paper, but is much more fancy (and costly) but in the end we were still on a bumpy, dirty cement floor trying to keep the cardboard clean and unflattened while we cut a straight line that couldn't be more than one sixteenth off. Oh, and we wanted the edges to be square, usually. We had an L square, but they aren't a whole hell of a lot of help without a T square and a good drafting board. Well, I came up with all sorts of jury-rigged systems using old wooden bookshelves and faith, but it was all very relative. I really want to see a archiving studio now, I bet they have fancy tables and special sliding blades for making nice clean, square cuts. I bet they have lots of room too. If I wasn't bumping into a wall, I was constantly afraid I was going to put my foot, or the blade, or the corner of a stretcher through someone else's artwork. There was stuff everywhere, a lot of it huge and fairly delicate. The bull in a china shop feeling was a constant during this process. It gave those epic-length head rushes I experienced (while sick) some extra drama. Goody. I love drama.

Oh and the exacto knife was probably dull. One might assert that it doesn't say a lot about me that it didn't occur to me to ask if there were any replacement blades, but in my defense I'll say that I'm used to doing things with inadequate tools, there were already so many other obstacles we were tackling, and this was the point when I had that snail-brain virus (I was amazed at how many different names you all had for that malaise, by the way). So being a bear of small brain and generally inclined to assuming things don't work quite right anyway, I just kept sawing away. I don't think I did too much damage to any of the cardboard. As Dessida kept pointing out, we want it to look good now, we'll worry about its place in posterity later.

All in all, I'd say that Dess, her husband Kevin, Michal and I did pretty well. Hanging the large paintings in such a way that they looked level in a gallery with a distinctly warped floor was our last and final challenge. Well, no, the final challenge was doing all that while getting a triptych properly lined up. No, wait, the last challenge was lighting the damn show when none of us really knew how lighting worked. The hope was that my theatrical background would be an asset here, but my knowledge of lighting consists of "ya point an instrument at the stage, then turn it on." Didn't really put me ahead of the pack, have to say.

But we did it. And I think it looks pretty good. More importantly, so does Dess. When I asked her why her professors all encouraged them to make big works when they knew how little studio space they provided, she said the faculty felt it was good practice for working in New York. These are precisely the struggles one will face here anyway, might as well start finding solutions now. I can't argue with that. Everything, I mean everything boils down to real estate here, and few are the artists who have enough space for their needs. I noticed a few years ago that if need be, most of my solo performances could fit in an eight by eight square space. The reason? I was usually creating the work in my living room, rather than renting a studio. Good lesson there.

Anyone in the area want to join me at the reception this Thursday evening? With Dessida's permission I might be able to take photos of some of her paintings.


Eric said...

Well! Sounds like someone's been a busy little beaver!!

Birdie said...

Wow. I had no idea the kind of preparation an art show takes. Thanks for this glimpse into the artist's world. I would love to see pictures of her work if you can do it.

Butch said...

If I were a lot closer to you in distance, I would love to come to that showing. I hope she allows you to take some photos of her work.

I understand what you mean by not physically seeing what our posteriors look like. I too, have done the mirror adjustment routine to get a gander at what I call,
"the back forty," but you are correct, unless one is very flexible . . .and in my case, all I would need to do is gaze upon the backside of a Clydesdale to appreciate what properties I may exhibit.;-)

Patrick said...

Birdie: well, this is not a representative show in some ways because this process of mounting her paintings is unusual. There is still a lot of work involved in preparing a show, of course, but it doesn't usually involve this involved a process for mounting the work. Dess is saying now that she is only going to paint on post-it notes.

Butch: ah my friend, Clydesdales are so much more appealing, dare I say sexy, than those emaciated, anorexic thoroughbreds.

somewhere joe said...

Patrick, the only way you're going to get a truly objective understanding of your butt is to have me describe it to you.

Yikes. Archival standards are a bear. But see... having someone describe it to you works.